The last time we checked in with director Niles Heckman it was for the work day from hell sci-fi short Supervised he co-directed with Rick Glenn. Unbeknownst to us at the time however, Heckman was already deep into production on Auroras, a tale of cyborg love and separation, which plays out against the grand vista of a 22nd century North Pole space elevator. Heckman joins us to discuss his developing film philosophy and fighting the battle against Herculean render times with a single PC render farm.
We featured your films Supervised & Toughest Skin on DN previously but Auroras actually pre-dates both those projects. What was the initial spark that began this 3+ year journey?
I’ve always been mesmerized by astronomy and the stars. The aurora borealis natural light display is one of the most beautiful aspects of astronomy and the night sky. It seems other worldly and had such an instant mood of peace and calm associated with it. Advance technologies and massive engineering projects, which Japan is often times on the leading edge of, also fascinate me. So the concept of a space elevator certainly fits that description. A story centred around a North Pole based Japanese space elevator rising up through the aurora borealis popped into my head years ago when I was living in New Zealand working on Avatar. I started writing a script around that concept and it wasn’t until the story developed more that I realized those two main elements are a perfect pairing on multiple cultural and stylistic levels as well. I technically consider this to be my first real professional narrative film and Supervised my second, so my goal was to tell a good but simple story in a complex way. It took so long to complete because it got basically shelved for over a year while I made the other film and for technical reasons to do with the rendering of the computer graphics.
You’ve described the film as ‘live action anime’ and the Japanese influence is clear right down to the dual language credits. What were the stylistic references which informed the look of Auroras?
Japanese culture is a fascination and about every other project I do has some kind of Japanese influence. I had read years prior that in Japanese culture a child conceived under the northern lights is considered to be extremely good luck and Japanese tourists will often visit Alaska in the winter for just that reason. So this cultural element along with their high-technology totally fit the story and spoke to my love of comics, graphic novels, manga, & anime. This was the motivation for the loved one’s pregnancy and ties in with much of the symbolism of the film as well.
The look of the film is most influenced by Japanese Anime director Makoto Shinkai, whose films stories centre around young love and have stunning art direction, particularly skies. His very saturated colors create heightened mood for times of day. Much like the French comic artist Mobieus, his work also features vast landscapes with a single far off focal point. Such as a mountain, rocket launch, or some kind of massive engineering structure. This is definitely why I made the space elevator base in the film a 300 story tall structure which towers over the rest of the city like the Burj Kafka in Dubai.
Your journey from script to screen has certainly been a slow and steady one. Has the film shifted form over that period. Was there a point of no return at which everything became locked down.
On the writing front the film had a second round of polishing done to it, on a technical front, no. It kept clear focus all through its development which I’m very proud of. Initially I wanted it to have no voice over and be a show not tell. I’m so in awe of good story telling with no dialogue. The beginnings of both the Triplets of Belleville and There Will Be Blood for example, each which totally suck the viewer in with zero dialogue. I also thought keeping the story simple would be easier with no voice over. Since the narrative has two timelines, one the current story of where the Occupant character is going and the other the backstory timeline of whom she is leaving, I ended up adding the voice over in a script re-write later to clarify that structuring. I also felt it gave more weight to the Occupant character since the arch of what she does from beginning to end is essentially just go from tears to smiling.
Once the script was done, I started previsualizing the film. Previs is what I’ve typically done for day job work in the game cinematic and commercial industries over the last few years and consists of creating versions of the characters and locations in the computer to make moving storyboards. It can be as rough or as detailed as you want, depending on time and budget. I did a very detailed previs which looked like a low-end final version of the movie. Complete with rough sound mix and then locked the edit. On a high-budget professional project with computer graphics such as a game cinematic it can be astronomically expensive to go back and change shots in the cut later because its basically like re-tearing down the construction of a house to re-adjust the foundation. So with extremely limited resources on this project, I couldn’t have changed the edit later even if I wanted to.
The spine of the film is provided by the Occupant’s plaintive plea/declaration to the Loved One. How hard was it to hit the correct tonal balance for that? Did you achieve it on the page or did you tweak it further once you heard Samatha Cutaran’s read?
Samatha’s voice represents the Occupant character, and her poem tells the arch of her main internal turmoil through metaphors timed with what’s being seen on screen. Because of the fact that it’s about two women in love who are forced to separate at the worst possible time, as the Occupant is called on a mandatory mission just days before the Loved One’s character is to deliver their child, I knew this project would be very feminine. Potentially even a bit syrupy to the alpha male. Men writing women’s dialogue in an authentic and sensitive fashion is not easy and I have huge admiration for Daniel Clowes who did such a phenomenal job of accurately capturing realistic and believable depressed teenage female characters in the comic book Ghost World and its film adaptation.
I initially looked into casting a voice over specialist, but all their readings had that artificial I’m trying to secretly sell you something undertone since most of their work is for commercials. So I ended up casting an actor just like for an animated movie. Sam fit the part very well and brought a lot of range to her reading. We did many takes of each line at different emotions, and then had probably the best performance when she just read the whole poem wild at her own pace. The film builds and builds to a massive crescendo so I knew it couldn’t be read softly like in a Makoto Shinkai or Terrence Malick film. I wouldn’t mind if Hollywood discontinued that whisper voice anyway. On a side note, apparently 2001 originally had voice over and then Kubrick removed it which in the long run made the work stronger. I also have an alternate instrumental version of the film without the voice over.
Jess Dela Merced plays both the Occupant and Loved One in Auroras but doesn’t have dialogue at her disposal or a real environment to play off. How did you work together to craft her performances?
Jess played duel roles in the film and we used makeup and some post work to change both characters’ faces to not obviously be the same actor. In a sci-fi sense, if both of these women are cyborgesque, it helped to have them look a bit similar since perhaps they come from similar fabricators. The Occupant’s range of motion is from initially crying tears when leaving to smiling when she sees where she’s going. The Loved One’s range of motion is the opposite. Beginning with holding her composure to then crying tears on the back end as she is left behind. I wanted to get those basic performances without having stale, boring, or bland green screen work. An actor who has to cry on set all day is draining work and Jess can actually cry on command since she’s quite a stellar actor. We only did eye drops after she had no more natural tears left to cry each shooting day.
What was your crew and gear set up for the shoot?
It was literally shot with a 3-person crew in my living room on a tiny green screen stage using hacked GH2 & Canon 5D cameras. Higher end cameras are great but I’ve certainly concluded you don’t need to put in higher cost on more expensive camera hardware, since this film was essentially shot on $3500 of camera gear.
With such a protracted production period did you ever have to backtrack to redo earlier work which didn’t stand up to later more polished elements?
I have a background doing a variety of different roles in visual effects so I can be a whole mini-pipeline from start to finish myself if needed. All the post was primarily done by yours truly, with some help by the film’s two Art Directors – Bastiaan Koch & Marco Iozzi. Bastiaan helped me design and build the environments in 3D on the front end while Marco helped me design and polish the environments in 2D on the back end. There were multiple generations of shot finals. The first shot I thought was finaled ended up being re-polished a year later after the last shot was finaled. That’s common on long timeline projects. When I worked on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to create the CG Benjamin head, we were going back and re-working on shots which had been previously finaled a year prior since the look of all the other shots had superseded the initial final quality level.
VFX is often thought and treated like a very tertiary part of the film industry and many visual effects personnel don’t make good story tellers or directors if they’re sitting in front of a computer all day not working with or around actors. However, it is the one part of the film industry that can have a integral connection to every other department. If you’ve had a background in VFX doing a variety of different things and working with actors in voice over, on set, or on motion capture stages you can build up an incredible versatile and broad skill set as a filmmaker.
The correct combination of score and sound design is crucial for an audience to invest in this futuristic world. How did you work with your team to bring life to the images you had so painstakingly created?
Andrew Duncan is a brilliant sound designer who works out of a little garage studio apartment in LA. He has a musical background and is one of the founding members of the band OK Go. Because most of the reason the film took so long was just because of no budget render time, Andrew had a massive amount of time (over a year) to build up a library of sounds and polish and polish. Dan Haigh and Alex Westaway are a London-based composing duo called Gunship. Which they promote as a neon soaked, late night, sonic getaway drive, dripping with luscious analog synthesizers, cinematic vocals and cyberpunk values. Their synth work is stunning and they level up the visuals so much. Audrey Riley is a cellist and string arranger based in the UK who came on after the score was started and really made it something memorable and special. The way I can tell if a score is good and memorable and not just what I call “filler score” is you should be able to hum it to yourself. Dan and Al were involved in the project from previs stage and their Japanese Taiko drum replication created an integral masculine balance to such a feminine story.
You got a good 75% of the way through production before you turned to Kickstarter for assistance (and were 126% funded). What did the successful campaign enable you to do at that stage of the project?
Getting some final render farm help on the two most complicated shots. Attempting to create a short with lots of high-end CG outside a paradigm of large professional teams is a bit like climbing ten Mt. Everests all by yourself. I can totally see why so many CG projects never finish because to get it looking good with little money takes forever. This short took so long because it was almost entirely rendered on a single PC. A zero budget render farm. I would light the scene, kick off a render and it would run for 1, 2, sometimes 3 weeks and then I would composite the shot and repeat the process for the next shot. Most of that time I was working on other projects though so that was all side time. There were a couple shots that would have taken multiple months to render though so I paid to do those. If the Kickstarter hadn’t have been successful, the project would have gotten done, it just would have taken even longer. I definitely learned a ton from that first crowdsourcing campaign. Most crowdsourcing help online is very general so if anyone wants my list of tips and secrets I learned which are specific to film campaigns, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.
Auroras began as part of an overarching feature storyline. Can you tell us anything more about that story? Any idea when we’ll get to see it?
The main character of the feature story is the child who is now grown and what’s happening in the short is part of the feature backstory. The short has quite a bit of symbolism packed into it which you can read about in the summary I wrote and the feature greatly expands on this symbolism.
I’ve been going through what you might call a spiritual unfoldment in recent years which is turning me into a bit of an esoterist and heavily effecting what type of filmmaker I’m becoming. It’s also making me more of an authentic human being and conscious to the point where I don’t really consume any sort of top down anything anymore because I’ve realized most of it is at best tawdry or worst propagandistic. There’s a term called Sturgeon’s Law which states that 90% of everything is crap. Boy is that true. I do like human interest piece films and independent film and still watch those occasionally. However I’ve learned that to some extent, if you want to become a really good filmmaker you have to stop consuming the 90% of cinema which is bad. Instead I’m reading more esoteric books and classical literature. Doing so is making me a much better speaker and writer. Stephen King says in his book On Writing that he reads 4 or 5 hours a day and that’s one of his critical keys to being such a prolific writer.
So the feature story is a story of the daughter’s struggle which is metaphorical to all of our struggles in today’s culture. It’s basically a man vs machine archetype and has Gnostic themes similar to the Matrix’s themes of un-plugging from a machine cultural control system. It has esoteric material which is phenomenally culturally relevant to people’s lives in today’s world complete with political undertones. Science fiction is not about the future, it’s about the time period in which it’s created and I feel the best sci-fi encodes these archetypes. Occasionally I see Hollywood chasing the bleeding edge of some of this material but for the most part, they have yet to tackle much of it. Instead it’s mostly sizzle over substance. That’s what I’d like to change with scripts like this one.